The past two years have brought, among other things, one universal truth to light: we’re all washing our hands wrong.
Basic hygiene and cleanliness became one of the crucial pillars of public health campaigns amid other safety protocols in the early days of Covid-19, leading us to discover how foreign these fundamental concepts were to many. In addition to surface disinfectant and soap, we stocked up on hand sanitizer, believing its claims of eradicating 99% of bacteria on our hands would protect us from an airborne illness. But using hand sanitizer or any other disinfecting or skin-related product isn’t always healthy. Here’s why.
If you’ve ever been personally affected by hand sanitizer, you’ve probably noticed it first at the surface level.
Hand sanitizer at its core isn’t meant to hydrate our skin. It’s meant to disinfect and protect us against germs and bacteria, meaning that the levels of alcohol in hand sanitizer can lead to skin irritation and increased sensitivity. Overdoing hand sanitizer use (as we might do during a pandemic) and specifically using products that remove moisture from the skin can lead to eczema and dermatitis, resulting in dry, cracked skin and even painful blisters.
The levels of alcohol in hand sanitizer can lead to skin irritation and increased sensitivity.
There are also potential issues going on with our skin that we don’t even notice. We use these products to protect ourselves from germs, bacteria, and illness, but in doing so we’re effectively changing the makeup of our microbiomes. While there’s a lot of bad bacteria we’re protecting ourselves from by being hygienic, we’re also altering the good, naturally occurring bacteria on our skin. Even if we wish we could just prevent the bad bacteria from getting in and keep the good, our antimicrobial hand sanitizer doesn’t know the difference, meaning we’re potentially sacrificing all of those benefits.
Potential Fertility Issues
While alcohol-based sanitizers have their own issues, non-alcohol-based products can be even riskier. That’s because they contain antibiotic compounds like triclosan, which has been reported to have negative effects on fetal development and fertility.
Additionally, another study from Virginia Tech researched why a group of mice was having trouble getting pregnant. The researchers found that because the mice were frequently handled by human hands that used hand sanitizer, the active ingredients in the hand sanitizer were specifically inhibiting the mice from reproducing. The two chemicals, ADBAC and DDAC, are commonly found in hand sanitizers, fabric softeners and dryer sheets, preservatives in makeup, and other household disinfectants and cleaners.
Some Hand Sanitizers Contain Methanol
The demand (and at some points, limited supply) of hand sanitizer at the onset of the pandemic was almost insurmountable, leading many businesses to create their own to keep up with the demand. To specifically combat the issue, the FDA relaxed its manufacturing standards and permitted 1,500 hand sanitizer products to be released to the public. It did so to its own detriment, though.
Methanol can cause dermatitis, and if ingested can lead to vomiting and even blindness.
Many of these, while probably well-intentioned, lacked quality control, but consumers were so desperate for some they bought it anyway. Specifically, some hand sanitizer products found at Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club were found to contain methanol, some of them up to 81%. Methanol is also known as wood alcohol, and on the surface level, can cause irritation and dermatitis. If ingested though, it can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and even blindness.
This resulted in the FDA issuing a list of brands they warned against buying. These included brands like Saniderm, The Good Gel, CleanCare NoGerm, and All-Clean Hand Sanitizer. Consequently, poison control centers reported an increase of 59% in hand sanitizer-related calls in the first seven months of 2020. While adults can be severely affected by these products, they’re especially harmful if used by children.
In the same statement, the FDA warned that even products that list ethanol or isopropyl alcohol as their main ingredient could contain harmful chemicals. A toxin known as 1-propanol has been found in several hand sanitizer products. The toxin is up to four times as potent as alcohol when absorbed through the skin (as it would be as part of a hand sanitizer), and can impair your consciousness, cause prolonged confusion, and a slowed pulse, and over time, cause central nervous system damage.
There’s a Right (and Wrong) Way To Clean Our Hands
Hand sanitizer is often marketed as a substitute for a good, old-fashion hand-washing. Many of us, if we’re not going for the full, scalding hot water, 20-second scrubbing, would probably assume that a stringent, strong hand sanitizer does the job just as well, if not better. But that’s not true.
More than just running your hands under some hot water, there is actually an optimal way to wash your hands that removes viruses & bacteria without hurting your skin. Washing your hands, or what’s also known as basic hygiene, is really important. 1 in 5 newborn deaths are caused by unhygienic conditions in developing countries, and the lack of public health knowledge and access to hygienic products is still a problem many of these developing areas are facing, even before the pandemic.
If you consider yourself particularly health and safety conscious, you probably believe that scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds with hot water and antibacterial or antimicrobial soap is the best way to go. But it’s not, and we’ve even seen studies pointing to the contrary.
The length of time we’re washing our hands is really the key to getting them clean.
In 2017, the Journal of Food Protection published a study that was focused on determining the exact parameters we should be meeting to get our hands clean. The variables in the study, or what the scientists measured at differing rates, were water temperature, soap volume, lather time, and even the type of soap the participants used, and which combination of all these factors worked best. The researchers found that it isn’t usually necessary to get the water as hot as you possibly can and scrub your hands raw for 20 seconds to get them safe from harmful bacteria.
Researchers found that it doesn’t matter what kind of soap you use, or what temperature the water is. What’s really important, as concluded in the results of the study, is washing your hands thoroughly for around 10 seconds. Regular soap got hands just as clean as the antimicrobial soap did, and temperature had little to no effect, but the length of time we’re washing our hands is really the key to getting them clean.
We still need to wash our hands, but hand sanitizer is not a good replacement for that. It’s clear we shouldn’t be obsessively using these products when they’re clearly responsible for both surface-level and potentially internal damage. It’s also a good reminder for buyer beware: the products that advertise themselves as the most effective in cleaning or disinfecting also might be doing the most damage.
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